Brandenburg Concertos [all]

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        In the history of the arts, as in all fields of human endeavor, there often come times in which momentous changes occur in a relatively short period. And that is certainly the case in the years surrounding the end of the 1500s, for this period saw the beginning of most of what is familiar to today’s concert audiences. Before about 1600 (give or take a few decades) there were no symphonies, no symphony orchestras, no operas, no cantatas, no sonatas, no string quartets, and no concertos. Whew! That’s a lot, and of course, the advent of these genres—or their ancestors--kicked off what we call the baroque era in music.

        One of the favorite fundamental ideas of composers early in this moment was that of contrasting a soloist, a group of soloists, or even two or more groups of musicians with each other during the course of a composition. They called this idea concertato, and this of course is the origin of what we all know as a concerto. In those days there were three kinds of this beast: they featured, respectively, a soloist and an orchestra, a small group of soloists with an orchestra, and an orchestra alone (but with lots of solo passages for the members). Nowadays, as all concertgoers know, the first kind is predominant, but we still encounter some recent compositions of the other sorts.

        Composers whose names still resonate with us made contributions to all three of these kinds of concertos during the baroque period: Corelli, Handel, Vivaldi, Torelli, and many others. None, however, reached the zenith of achievement in the genre as did J. S. Bach in his six Brandenburg Concertos late in the style period. Bach, like most of his contemporaries, wrote to order, that is, he composed works that were commissioned or had a good chance of immediate financial payoff. Consequently, his many compositions tend to reflect the nature of his specific responsibilities as he moved from job to job trying to support all those children (20!). So, his major works for organ reflect his focus on that instrument while at the court of Weimar and his many church cantatas largely stem from his work as Cantor in Leipzig. From 1717 until 1723 he was in the employ of Prince Leopold of Cöthen, a small court in eastern Germany. It is during his relatively short sojourn there that most—but certainly not all--of Bach’s instrument ensemble music was written—a reflection of his duties there and the court’s resources. The Brandenburg Concertos stem from this time: the full score in Bach’s hand bears the date of 24 March 1721, but it is probable that simply marks the completion of the set; he certainly had been working on them over a period of time. They bear the title “Brandenburg Concertos” owing to their dedication to the Margrave of Brandenburg, Christian Ludwig. Bach had played before him earlier in Berlin and the concertos were the result of an invitation to provide some works for the Margrave. Nothing came of it—no money, no thanks, not even a by your leave. But the Margrave’s loss is posterity’s gain.

        Concertos, then as now, are generally cast in three movements, with a slow movement framed by brisker ones. It is useful to note, too, that almost all music of the time was supported by a small group that sustained the harmony, provided the bass line, contributed to rhythmic stability, and in general provided a foundation for the solo instruments and the accompanying string section. If that sounds like what we call the rhythm section in jazz, well that is exactly right—the same functions are served in both styles, even though separated by two hundred and fifty years of musical history. In the 1600s and 1700s that group generally was comprised of a harpsichord or organ and one or more bass instruments—cellos, bassoons, and double basses. Earlier in the period, the featured instruments were most often various stringed instruments—solo or a small group of them—or a solo trumpet or woodwind instrument.

        Bach’s soaring imagination comes to fore in the Brandenburg Concertos in many ways, not the least is his striking use of a variety of instruments in various combinations. In addition to the normal body of strings that is familiar, we encounter trumpet, recorders, French horns, oboes, flute, violino piccolo, violas, violas da gamba, and harpsichord. They constitute a beguiling group of colors, and Bach creatively formed six small palettes of instrument color with these resources—no two of the six concertos are alike. Some of these instruments are more or less obsolete these days, and, instead, players generally perform on the more familiar stringed instruments. Recorders are common these days (but not virtuoso ones!), and the flute is often substituted.

        With all of this in mind, here are a few things to listen for: Remember, this is Baroque music, so prepare for long phrases, literally “spun out,” as the faster sections take their time to reach a pause. Don’t expect “singable” melodies in the nineteenth-century fashion, but rather melodies that are constructed out of short, little motives that often “chug” along in a relentless motoric, but charming fashion. Economy of means is an artistic virtue—making the most of little—and Bach was the master of it. The slow movements, while still exhibiting the long phrases of the faster ones, generally fashion their melodies, not out of short incisive motives, but seemingly as long-breathed “operatic arias” for an instrument. The Italian vocal influence is unmistakable here, and again, it is one of Bach’s most enduring traits. And notice especially, the importance of the omnipresent small supporting group of harpsichord and bass instruments—a group one wag once compared to the “ . . . presence of the Holy Spirit—subtle, but conspicuous only in Its absence.” Finally, it’s interesting to note how the composer constantly contrasts soloists with the main body, or different colors from each other. It’s Bach at his best, and you can choose any meaningful way to enjoy his inimitable music. Soli Deo gloria.

        Concerto No. 1 in F Major, BWV 1046 This concerto is an example of the type of concerto in which there is a small group of soloists accompanied by a larger group of strings—usually called a concerto grosso. The small group of soloists in this case consists of two hunting horns, three oboes, a bassoon, and a piccolo violino (played today on an ordinary violin). The small group rarely plays completely by itself, but distinguishes itself through a constant stream of solo passages from the individual members. The usual three movements occur—fast, slow, fast—but, Bach in this concerto has added a rather substantial fourth movement of dances. There are seven sections: a minuet, trio, a repeat of the minuet, a “Polish dance,” the minuet again, a new trio, and finally our old friend, the minuet again. It bears fruit to observe how Bach contrasts the minuet (always played by the full orchestra) with the various combinations of soloists in the two trios and polacca.

        Concerto No. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047 The second concerto is distinguished for its use of solo trumpet in the small group, along with recorder, oboe, and violin, accompanied by the usual large group of strings and harpsichord. As pointed out earlier, the transverse flute is often substituted for the block flute (recorder). The trumpet faces a challenge, not only in the need to “hold it down” to blend with the softer soloists, but also in the formidable high register in which it famously must play. It’s written much higher than most of today’s orchestral trumpet parts for the simple reason that only in that manner could eighteenth-century players have a full scale to play melodies—there being no valves on brass instruments in those days to make it possible otherwise. In this concerto the attentive listener will note the frequent alternation between solo and large groups. The last movement is quite dominated by the small group of soloists, the large group not entering until well into the movement. Listeners of a certain age will recognize the last movement as the theme of the PBS series “The Firing Line” with Wm. F. Buckley—who adored Bach.

        Concerto No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048 This concerto differs from the first two concertos in that it is the variety of concerto in which everyone is a soloist. Scored for three violins, three violas, three cellos plus the “rhythm section,” the work is characterized by a jolly rhythmic drive that is practically unceasing in its zest and vivacity. The first movement contrasts sections where everyone plays in unison with sections for the three violins, then three violas, and then three cellos. There are only two movements--both fast--actually written by Bach (of the expected usual three), but there are two cadential chords written to serve as a bridge between the two movements. While in some performances the harpsichord simply plays the two chords before the groups sails off into the last movement, it has become traditional—and certainly follows the practice of the time—to allow the harpsichordist an opportunity to indulge in the improvisation of a significant cadenza at this point. The last movement takes up the exuberance of the first with even more cheerful ferocity.

        Concerto No. 4 in G Major, BWV 1049 This concerto features a solo violinist, and although there are also two flutes in the small solo group, the work is practically a solo concerto for violin, such is the virtuoso nature its part in the two framing fast movements. An unusual sound occurs in the slow middle movement where the solo violin is taken out of its customary high register and given, of all things, the low bass line to play, underneath the flutes. Both of the fast movements provide ample opportunity for the solo violinist to amaze us with dazzle: cascades of dizzying scales, double and triple stops, as well as challenging string crossing.

        Concerto No. 5 in D Major, BWV 1050 The combination of flute (transverse, not recorder), violin, and harpsichord was a common chamber ensemble during Bach’s time, and here he simply uses that combination as his solo group with the orchestra supporting. It is also noteworthy to point out that this is the first composition of his oeuvre wherein Bach calls for the transverse flute, so familiar today, and not the recorder. While the parts for the solo violin and flute are certainly of great merit, it is the rôle of the harpsichord that is renowned in the first movement. Finally, the harpsichord player gets to step to the front of the stage! Firstly, it is important to realize, that in contradistinction to that instrument’s part in all of the previous movements, in this movement it is not a “backup” instrument, but a true soloist. And secondly, we will remember that in the true jazz “rhythm section” tradition of the earlier movements, the harpsichord previously, literally improvised his own part according to the indicated chords. Now, however, Bach has written out a true virtuosic part for the harpsichordist. While sounding somewhat like an improvised cadenza, it is in fact a remarkable solo passage that in all probability reflects the composer’s own stunning ability to play harpsichord and organ. In many respects this concerto can be considered the progenitor of the piano concerto so beloved of today’s symphony audiences.

        Concerto No. 6 in Bb, BWV 1051 In the last of the six concertos we enter a new world of sound, for the color allure of brass and woodwinds and the brilliance of violins gives way to the mellow warmth of low strings alone. As pointed out earlier, Bach called for the now-obsolete (at least in the modern orchestra) viole da gamba, replaced now by cellos. So, what you’ll hear are two solo violas and two solo cellos, accompanied by the rhythm section (which of course has the cello and double bass). The first movement is rather like a fugue—what else would you expect of Bach? In the second slow movement the viola da gamba parts are silent, leaving the field to the quiet beauty of just two solo violas and the small accompaniment group. The final movement is a spirited jig—but not too much so. Even when he dances, Bach maintains his dignity.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan